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LAVIOLETTE, PIERRE – Volume VIII (1851-1860)

b. 4 March 1794 in Boucherville, Lower Canada


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BARRETT, ALFRED, engineer; b. in New England; m. and had at least one son; d. 18 July 1849 in Montreal.

About 1818 Alfred Barrett began working for the engineering staff of the Erie Canal in New York State. He gained experience there through practical work and rose rapidly, becoming an engineer by 1821. After the completion of the canal in 1825, he was appointed resident superintending engineer of the Welland Canal, in Upper Canada, on 10 May 1826. His appointment may have resulted from a visit to the Erie in 1824 by the promoter of the Welland, William Hamilton Merritt*, during which Merritt had established contact with engineers and contractors. Barrett and David Thomas, appointed chief engineer of the Welland, were probably the first American engineers to work in British North America.

After Thomas resigned in June 1827 Barrett carried on alone. Work progressed favourably until November 1828 when the steep banks of the Deep Cut at the canal summit slid into the channel. Since it was impossible to rebuild this section, the water supply system for the summit had to be redesigned. James Geddes, one of the most experienced engineers on the Erie, was brought in to help Barrett resurvey the canal. A new source of water was found, and the canal was opened on 30 Nov. 1829. The following year Barrett surveyed the St Lawrence River from Lake Ontario to Lake St Francis with a view to improving navigation, but nothing came of the project. He returned to the Welland Canal to work on an extension at Port Colborne, Upper Canada, in 1831.

During the 1830s, with reduced opportunities for engineers in the Canadas, Barrett returned to the United States. He became the engineer of the Chenango Canal, a branch of the Erie. By 1837 he was a resident engineer on the Erie itself and the following year he became one of the five chief engineers responsible for its enlargement. Barrett resigned in 1843 because of New York laws which severely limited expenditures on the canal.

In 1841 a large imperial loan had been made available for public works in the Canadas. Much of the money was to be used to reconstruct the Canadian canal system from Lake Erie to Montreal. One of the bottlenecks was the Lachine Canal, originally built during the years 1821 to 1825. Barrett was appointed resident engineer, responsible for the canal’s enlargement, soon after the end of workers’ strikes there in 1843. Over the next four years he designed a larger canal prism and new lock and water control structures, while keeping the old canal open as much as possible. Some of the work necessitated construction during the winter, a rare occurrence in Canada at that time. Barrett also supervised the contractors and completed ancillary tasks such as designing basins, docks, and warehouses and developing specifications and structures for the use of surplus water as industrial power. By the 1850s water-power from the Lachine Canal had helped Montreal become the Canadas’ premier industrial city.

Barrett was also responsible for work on the Chambly Canal and the dam and lock at Saint-Ours. The Department of Public Works asked him to prepare special reports on the navigation of the Grand River, Upper Canada, and the Rivière Saint-Charles at Quebec, as well as on the possibility of erecting a bridge across Lac des Deux Montagnes near Montreal. With the enlargement of the Lachine Canal completed, Barrett, in view of his previous experience, was transferred in the fall of 1848 to the Welland Canal to replace Samuel Keefer*. He did not work there long since he died in Montreal of cholera in July 1849.

Little is known of Barrett’s personal life except that he was a freemason and that he helped form a total abstinence society among the Welland Canal workers in 1829. He must therefore be judged by his professional work. He held important positions on the Erie, Welland, and Lachine canals, some of the most significant and influential projects of the 19th century. The board of directors of the Welland Canal Company attributed part of his success to his ability to “combine strength with cheapness of execution” in his engineering structures. Contemporary and later engineers thought very highly of him. Only his early death prevented his acquiring a reputation equal to that of better-known colleagues.

Larry McNally

AO, ms 74, package 12. PAC, MG 24, E1, 6 (mfm.); RG 11, A1, 59–65; A3, 132. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1891, 10, no.9, app.19. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1843–50. Daylight through the mountain: letters and labours of civil engineers Walter and Francis Shanly, ed. F. N. Walker ([Montreal], 1957). R. C. Douglas, Confidential reports to the Hon. Sir Charles Tupper, K.C.M.G., C.B., minister of railways and canals, on the hydraulic powers situated upon the StLawrence and Welland canals (Ottawa, 1882). John Mactaggart, Three years in Canada: an account of the actual state of the country in 1826–7–8 . . . (2v., London, 1829). Montreal in 1856; a sketch prepared for the celebration of the opening of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada (Montreal, 1856). Welland Canal Company, Board of Directors, Annual report (St Catharines, [Ont.], 1828). Montreal Gazette, 19 July 1849. H. G. J. Aitken, The Welland Canal Company: a study in Canadian enterprise (Cambridge, Mass., 1954). J. P. Merritt, Biography of the Hon. WHMerritt . . . (St Catharines, 1875). R. E. Shaw, Erie water west; a history of the Erie Canal, 1792–1854 ([Lexington, Ky., 1966]). N. E. Whitford, History of the canal system of the state of New York together with brief histories of the canals of the United States and Canada . . . (Albany, N.Y., 1906). J. P. Heisler, “The canals of Canada,” Canadian Hist. Sites, no.8 (1973). H. C. Pentland, “The Lachine strike of 1843,” CHR, 29 (1948): 255–77.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Larry McNally, “BARRETT, ALFRED,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 4, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/barrett_alfred_7E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/barrett_alfred_7E.html
Author of Article:   Larry McNally
Title of Article:   BARRETT, ALFRED
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   March 4, 2024